Having lived in Ireland for over a year now, I should know better than to let anything Kevin Myers writes get to me. Yet I felt the need to speak out about Myers’ piece in Friday’s Irish Independent (‘What is Going On Amongst the Female Sex that so Many of its Members are Prepared to Undergo Cosmetic Surgery?’). In it, Myers uses scant anecdotal evidence to paint all women as looks-driven, celebrity-obsessed bimbos who take pleasure in mutilating our bodies to look beautiful.
There are several points that are grossly misinterpreted here. First of all, Myers attributes the behaviours of a handful of women to the entire female gender. He also takes the huge leap of equating highlighted hair and bikini waxes with excessive cosmetic surgery (dubbing the face-lift obsessed socialite Jocelyn Wildenstein a female role model made me spit out my coffee). Most egregiously though, Myers blames this pressure to look perennially youthful, slim, and sexually available squarely on ‘the feminist movement’.
While I wholeheartedly agree that the pressure on women to look perfect has resulted in distressing attitudes and behaviours, Myers’ charge that this was prompted by feminism is laughable. Women wouldn’t be getting boob jobs if society didn’t make us feel inadequate in the bodies we’re born with. The truth is that practically from birth, we are exposed to television, print, and Internet images that demonstrate how women should look, act, and dress. The media conglomerates that control this information are out to sell products, which they do by pigeonholing both genders, glorifying celebrities, and sowing self-doubt with the help of heavily Photoshopped images. Through all this exposure we are taught that a woman’s appearance is inseparable from her worth as a human being, regardless of what other accomplishments she has achieved. Those who don’t conform to the 21st century standard of female beauty (which is itself increasingly influenced by the mainstream porn industry) are made to feel worthless. Maybe the reason women like Brooke Shields and Melanie Griffth appear ‘so botoxed and collagened that they resembled the sewn-on faces of blow-up sex-dolls’ is because society’s attitude toward women over 40 is so derisive. Not so for Hollywood’s leading men.
The media fuels the fire by publishing re-touched photos and turning comments on a woman’s cellulite into ‘news’. Indeed one of Myers’ prime targets is the women’s magazine industry which is admittedly a primary arbiter of such content. But as someone who spent two years working at a pretty prominent fashion magazine, I can tell you that just because a woman is writing an article or editing a section doesn’t mean that she’s ultimately making the decisions on content. In my case that was left to my direct bosses, two men, whose own orders came from the CEO of the publishing company, a 60-something white male who let us all know in no uncertain terms what the magazine’s ‘message’ was to be. Any deviation would risk alienating advertisers and losing revenue. Therefore, Myers’ assertion that fashion magazines are ‘produced entirely by women’, and therefore we are the ones perpetuating beauty myths and eating disorders is false.
However, I’m determined to look on the bright side and be grateful that these issues are being discussed publicly; because identifying the problem is the only way we’re ever going to solve it. Happily, women’s representation in the media happens to be the very topic of the film ‘Miss Representation’, which the IFN is screening on February 22nd and March 11th. ‘Miss Representation’ articulates how media conglomerates, with the ultimate goal of making money, decide how women are represented in contemporary society. They get away with it by telling audiences that they are only providing what the public demands, thereby both guilting viewers into thinking that they are to blame, and creating the illusion that what they are seeing on TV is a reflection of reality.
It’s hard for women to win these days. If we don’t conform to society’s ideas about how we should present ourselves, we are overlooked and under-valued. The ones that do play the game are called bimbos. Try to look good and be successful at the same time and we’re accused of trying to have it all and then whining about it. Maybe, instead of pointing fingers like Kevin Myers we should concentrate on fixing the underlying problem. After all, at the heart of it, don’t we both agree that plastic surgery, eating disorders, and society’s obsession with dubious celebrity role models are a problem? Let’s change that then. As journalists, we can start by no longer picking women apart for their choices of clothing, hairstyles, and reading material, and stick to covering some actual news.
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